In this post Darryl Jones discusses his highlights of the Research Article ‘Barriers to building wildlife-inclusive cities: Insights from the deliberations of urban ecologists, urban planners and landscape designers by Cria A. M. Kay and colleagues and colleagues , which he handled as Associate Editor.

Read the Plain Language Summary of the paper here.

It is probably the most frequently statistic cited whenever anyone brings up urbanisation: most people on the planet now live in big cities, and its likely to be about 70% by 2050. And from that straightforward statement flows a plethora of implications and consequences: the importance of green space; the extinction of experience; nature-deficit disorder; connection with nature, and many other issues that will be very familiar to readers of People & Nature.

Less familiar than those concepts and academic hypotheses are the profoundly practical aspects that managers, rangers and council officers have to deal with on a daily basis: the reality that a lot of wildlife lives in and around and with us in our cities. Twin dilemmas confront anyone interested in people and nature in cities: the steady increase in wildlife-human conflicts, and the challenge of conserving urban biodiversity. Although some may still think that urban areas are largely nature-free zones, where the only ‘wildlife’ are rats and pigeons and that ‘biodiversity’ is what you find in distant national parks, the reality is very different.

The natural characteristics that led our ancestors to settle in the place where most cities now exist – fertile soils to grow crops, abundant water and timber, proximity to good hunting and foraging areas – were also the basis for higher-than-average species richness in such areas. The boundaries of most urban areas (in the New World, at least) still support greater natural biodiversity on average than other locations. And consequently, now include more endangered species.

And while it is true that most species fled when the bulldozers arrived to convert natural habitats into suburbs, and roads, factories and CBDs were installed, it wasn’t long before a selection of those species returned and have proliferated. Depending on where you live, foxes, coyotes, kangaroos, deer and even leopards (in India’s largest cities) are now thoroughly established in some of the most densely inhabited urban areas on the planet.

For those entrusted with dealing with these complex and exacerbating issues, solutions are few and far between. Around town hall meeting rooms and council workshops, rhetorical pleas such as: “If only they had planned for this?” are heard regularly, while someone may offer: “I’ve heard that the University has done a study on that?” All too often, the retort will be something like: “Yes, I tried to read it but I just didn’t get it.”

If only the planners had talked to the urban ecologists, or the wildlife managers to the park designers, or the architects to the wildlife researchers. If only the interdisciplinary conversations that have been advocated and encouraged for decades had actually eventuated. If only the researchers were able to suggest practical solutions rather than esoteric prognostications.

Such pragmatic questions were front and centre of an important and potentially significant Summit held at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago in 2019. Over 80 urban ecologists, town planners and architects came together for four days of intense discussion focussed on the many issues surrounding the presence of wildlife in cities. Everyone, as usual, agreed wholeheartedly that meaningful collaboration across disciplines was essential for progress. Where things took a dramatic turn was the willingness to ask why pointedly, why working together rarely occurred. It was the delegates willingness to identify the barriers to this vital work which emerged as the major theme of the meeting.

The Urban Wildlife Information Network (UNWIN) had been formed to facilitate exchanges of information on wildlife among researchers and urban ecologists across a number of cities in North America. The UNWIN Summit was their first major event and the decision to highlight the roadblocks and barriers to the effective collaboration was unusually candid.

The first and perhaps most obvious barrier was that of the continuing existence of disciplinary silos: moated, self-contained repositories of knowledge and approaches with their own language, customs and culture. Accepting this reality and acknowledging that effective communication between such silos is a crucial first step, but can be unexpectedly challenging. Penetrating this barrier is fundamental to any advance in collaboration yet remains difficult. Closer working relationships between members of separate silos requires vision and willingness to challenge the status quo. Possibly the most effective way to move beyond this problem is to form transdisciplinary teams at the very beginning of the planning process. This allows multiple perspectives to be shared and debated, well before the concrete has been poured.

Another major obstacle discerned was that of the difference in incentives that exist between disciplines and professional groups. Urban ecologists overwhelmingly are academics where the currency of success and the route to promotion are grants and high-quality publications. Engaging with consulting planners or agency project managers may prove problematic: one side needs publications while the other, practical advice. This can lead to an understandable reluctance to collaboration, especially if the outcomes won’t eventuate for some time. One possible route through this difficult terrain is for projects to be devised in such as way that various elements can be investigated by the researchers as it develops, potentially allowing publications to be developed en route rather than waiting until the final report is due some time into the future.

Issues surrounding funding are, in many ways, similar to those associated with incentives. Many of the traditional academic funding agencies are often reluctant to support projects with largely practical outcomes. Vice versa, funding from government agencies or corporations are rarely interested in theoretical or pure findings. The obvious challenge is to develop innovative ways to sell the proposed project that offers both.

Another significant concern is that of the different geographic scales at which different disciplines traditionally operate. For example, urban ecologist investigating the movement of deer through a future development are likely to work at the larger landscape scale while the planners are probably concerned mainly with much smaller scales, such as individual house blocks. Effective collaboration should involve both approaches being applied, potentially providing insights that may have been missed.

Although retrofitting existing infrastructure such as waterways and connected greenspace has been achieved, sometimes with excellent results, the constraints are often overwhelming. Delegates strongly emphasised the importance of planning for habitat preservation, movement corridors and innovative placement to green roofs and walls; bringing future wildlife resource requirements to the foreground rather than as an after thought.

Finally, delegates acknowledged that profound differences in values may exist between those seeking design that was wildlife-inclusive and those who primarily viewed the presence of any wildlife primarily in terms of conflict or risk. Such clashes in perception may exist at the level of aesthetics were an area design to be attractive to wildlife may be seen as unkempt by some residents. This was one issue where considerable existing research could be utilised to design spaces where low-level connection with nature could be included in designs that encouraged coexistence as a first step for those yet to appreciate the benefits of being near nature.

The willingness to confront what are ubiquitous challenges in urban planning worldwide make this contribution especially useful. While the solution remain largely yet to be developed, this discussion is now well and truly underway.